It’s always risky to make the first movie about a recent cultural event. The temptation to cash in on a living piece of the zeitgeist is obvious, but the results are almost never good. Films like World Trade Center, Ashton Kutcher’s Jobs, and the surreally shitty W all stand in testament to the pitfalls of being the first penguin off the cliff.
So it was a mighty shiver that went through my spine when I found out that a dramatization of the first date between Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson premiered at Sundance this January. No, I said, somebody made an Obama movie. Why.
Then it started getting decent reviews in its limited theatrical release. After checking it out myself, I see why. This was a very solid first entry — and likely the only one for the next decade or more — in the canon of Obama movies.
Southside With You is a sweet, grounded indie date movie. The scope of the film is wisely confined in nearly every way: it borrows Before Sunrise’s format of presenting a date in real time and letting the chemistry do the work. The casting is good enough to excuse somewhat stilted acting — Tika Sumpter slightly outclasses her Barack, Parker Sawyers — and writer/director Richard Tanne does an admirable job of keeping the two characters human. Even despite a scene where Obama speaks in front of an adoring crowd (which actually happened) there are no monuments here. Just a confident man attempting to woo a woman who is forced to be vigilant about her identity and her worth. Some will find the movie slow, but the human pace makes it feel more real.
The star of the movie is the perspective we, the audience, have. We know what happens to this couple. We know the details of Obama’s much-investigated life, from his race to his uncommon childhood in Indonesia. Tanne, a first-time director, deserves an enormous amount of credit for presenting Barack and Michelle’s biographies in fresh detail without making a show of them.
In the course of having his characters explore each others’ histories, Tanne deftly contours the relationship we in the public see between the Obamas. What we like about them is their humanity and charm with one another. That sense of good-humored strength is what the film had to preserve about Barack and Michelle, and it succeeds.
As for being made too soon, it doesn’t feel that way. This movie is decidedly, mercifully set in 1989. There are almost no allusions to the course of things to come. Southside With You takes on the events of one day over twenty-five years ago and sticks the landing.
While still hoping that Hollywood doesn’t get into the habit of making too many way-too-soon films — Oliver Stone is venturing yet another one with Snowden as we speak — this movie doesn’t overstep any bounds. It’s a boy-meets-girl story that charms on its own, while setting up the history that would follow.